The Boneyard

Elbert Frank Cox - Mathematician'

The American Boneyard - December, 2005

Elbert Frank Cox (December 5, 1895- November 28, 1969) was an American mathematician who became the first black person in the world to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. He spent most of his life as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was known as an excellent teacher. During his life, he overcame various difficulties which arose because of his race. In his honor, the National Association of Mathematicians established the Cox-Talbert-Address, which is annually handed out at the NAM's national meetings. The Elbert F. Cox Scholarship Fund, which is used to help black students pursue studies, is named in his honor as well.

Early life

Cox was born in Evansville, Indiana to Johnson D. Cox, a Kentucky-born teacher active in the church, and Eugenia Talbot Cox. He grew up with his parents, maternal grandmother and two brothers in a racially mixed neighborhood; in 1900, in his block, there were three black and five white families. A very serious race riot broke out in 1903, with eleven deaths and fifty wounded. Many blacks left the city after this.
Cox went to a segregated school with inadequate resources. His father was an important inspiration for him.

College years
At school he showed talents in mathematics, physics, and playing the violin. He was offered a scholarship for the latter at Prague Conservatory of Music in Bohemia (at that time part of Austria-Hungary), but he chose to pursue a major in mathematics at Indiana University. He enrolled there in September 1913, 25 years after Robert Judson Aley had been the first to receive a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the university. By 1930, it would rank 2nd in the U.S. (after Harvard) for the number of mathematicians getting a bachelor's degree.

Besides mathematics, Cox took courses in German, English, Latin, history, hygiene, chemistry, education, philosophy and physics. Cox' brother Avalon was at Indiana University as well; there were three other black students in his class. He received his bachelors degree in 1917, at a time when the transcript of every black student had the word "COLORED" printed across it.

Between colleges
On September 4, 1917, Cox was appointed as a teacher at Alves Street School in Henderson, Kentucky, near his home Evansville. There he taught mathematics and physics to high-school students. In August 1918, Cox signed up to fight in World War I near the war's end. He served from August 22, 1918 until July 25, 1919.

In the autumn of 1919, he was appointed as a professor in physics, chemistry and biology at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He would continue there until 1922.

Cornell years

In December 1921, he applied for a graduate scholarship at Cornell University. He had already followed courses in zoology, chemistry, botany and dairy in the summers of 1920 and 1921. Cornell's founder, Ezra Cornell, had been an early opponent of slavery, and Cornell University was an appropriate place to study for an African American. Cox was approved May 5, 1922, and enrolled in the autumn of the same year.

Cox was very successful at Cornell. Important to him was a young instructor, William Lloyd Garrison Williams, a co-founder of the Canadian Mathematical Congress who became chair of Cox' "special committee" in March 1923, and was his supervisor. Cox received the Erastus Brooks fellowship in Mathematics ($400 per year) in autumn 1924, and followed Williams to McGill University in Montreal. He moved back to Cornell in the spring semester of 1925, and finished his dissertation, Polynomial solutions of difference equations, in the summer of the same year. On September 26, 1925, he received his Ph.D. He was certainly the first African American to receive a Ph.D in Mathematics, and most likely the first black man in the world to do so. He did not publish a paper until 1934.

At Cornell, Cox had had to endure different difficulties while pursuing his doctorate; the Ku Klux Klan was active in his area, killing 31 African Americans in 1926.

West Virginia State College

On September 16, 1925, Cox began teaching mathematics and physics at the then all-black, poorly funded West Virginia State College. Professors with a Ph.D. were a rarity there, and his international connections made him stand out as well. He received a salary of $1800. His influence can be seen in the large number of changes in the curriculum between 1925 and 1928. In 1927, he married Beulah Kaufman, the daughter of a former slave. She was a teacher at an elementary school, and worked with Cox' brother Avalon. He and Beulah had met in 1921 and had courted for six years. Their first child, James, was born in 1928. In 1929, he joined Howard University and moved to Washington, D.C.

Howard University

Cox started to teach at Howard University in September 1930. It was very different; despite his high credentials, he was outranked by other professors such as William Bauduit and Charles Syphax. Both had published multiple papers; it was only now that Cox published his graduation paper. Williams, his supervisor, tried to pursue recognition for Cox from a university from another country, but had difficulties in doing so. Different universities in England and Germany refused to consider his thesis, but the Tohoku Imperial University in Sendai, Japan did recognize it. It was published in the T?hoku Mathematical Journal in 1934 [1]. It has been suggested that the refusal of his thesis by English and German universities was because of his race. Being an African American, it was difficult to get a job where he could focus on research rather than teaching. He was, however, very active in teaching: the university' president, James M. Nabrit, remarked that Cox had directed more Master's Degree students than any other professor at Howard's University. His students also performed better than those of other professors, and he was a popular professor. Among his students was his son Elbert Lucien Cox. Cox was promoted to Professor in 1947. In 1954 he became head of the department of Mathematics, holding this position until 1961, when he had to quit because he had reached the age of 65. He continued teaching until his retirement in 1966 - three years before his death at age 73 in Washington. Although he did not live to see the first Ph.D. student graduate at Howard, many believe it was mainly due to his contributions that this became possible. Cox' portrait hangs in Howard University's common room.


Elbert and Beulah Kaufman-Cox had four children: James was born on August 9, 1928. Eugene Kaufman was born on September 23, 1930. He is currently an architect. Elbert Lucien was born on January 13, 1933. He followed his father and served as Associative Vice President at Howard University. Kenneth, born January 1935, died at the age of 17 months.

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